Clay Shirky wrote about this in Here Comes Everybody; the arrival of the printing press and how it changed everything. To summarize: when the printing press was invented the Church flipped out because they realized that they would no longer be in control of the information (namely, the Bible) that people had available to them. And they complained that this would lead to the death of scribes, which of course it did, and various other things. However to alert people to how terrible the printing press was as an invention, they had to use a printing press. Becaue scribes couldn’t produce enough copies at a fast enough pace.
Of course the Church lost that battle, and the number of different books rapidly increased.
So not that long ago, humans had very little information – the Bible was their primary source, and it was read to them and interpreted for them, and they had few other options other than to follow it blindly. Then we had the printing press, and there were books and the number of books grew rapidly until it was soon more than any person could read in a lifetime. And now, we have the internet and every day more content is produced and we have no hope keeping up with it all.
It’s amazing, how we can go from a place of so little information to too much. But here’s where I think we’ll go next – we’ll be able to manage this information because computers will get better at harvesting it, and it’ll become easier and easier to visualize it using tools like Wordles (nice example here) and mashups (Google’s medal mashup from the 2008 Olympics is a nice example). In fact, visualizing this data can be an Installation, as in I Want You To Want Me.
Smashing Magazine has a list of resources for Data Visualization and Infographics here. The more mainstream it gets, the better we’ll be able to manage all this information and pull the important points from it. In fact, we don’t even have to be able to visualize it! For instance, TweetMeme and TechMeme keep track of what links are being shared a lot on Twitter and deliver them right to your Twitter or RSS feed. So I don’t have to try and see everything that’s shared on Twitter, I can just keep track of what’s popular – much more achievable!
At the moment I’m working on Visualizing something that I think will show something interesting… more soon!